The comics had been a familiar daily distraction for Americans ever since Richard Outcault's The Yellow Kid debuted in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World in 1896. But it was during the Depression decade that they truly earned an enduring place in American culture, not only in the newspapers but also in the pulp magazines known as comic books. Still commonly known as "the funnies," comics of the 1930s actually branched out into genres of adventure, crime, and superhero fantasy. Generally dismissed as escapist entertainment of little social value, comic books in fact exerted a powerful influence on the popular imagination. They confronted the politics, contradictions, and social dislocations of the Great Depression in a way that young readers especially responded to. They presented a means for those readers to purchase entry into uniquely appealing fantasy worlds. And in the process they helped to invent the concept of commercial youth culture.
With a daily audience in the millions, newspaper comics were the property of powerful and mostly conservative syndicates like the Chicago Tribune, United Features, and William Randolph Hearst's King Features. Popular funnies such as Popeye, Mutt and Jeff, and Joe Palooka dealt in apolitical slapstick humor, sometimes with vague populist undertones. But the Tribune's serialized adventure strip Little Orphan Annie featured the benevolent corporate billionaire, Daddy Warbucks, and rankled the Roosevelt administration with its attacks on the New Deal. Other comic strips, such as Buck Rogers, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, and The Phantom, offered heroic fantasies set in future times, distant worlds, and remote jungles—places where injustice could be redressed and order restored without challenging the status quo at home.
But there was plenty of domestic disorder elsewhere in the comics page. Based on the FBI's popularized crusade against organized crime, Chester Gould's Dick Tracy was an unusually streetwise strip featuring an angular-jawed detective and a wonderfully grotesque rogues gallery. The quintessential Depression-era comic strip, Dick Tracy picked up where the Hollywood gangster films of the early 1930s left off, and it played to the popular taste for urban violence and mayhem.
In 1933 the Eastern Color Printing Company published the pioneering Funnies on Parade. Featuring reprinted newspaper comic strips on pulp paper bound together under a slick cover with a ten-cent price tag, it launched a new publishing trend soon to be called comic books. By 1935 some comic books began to feature original material not owned by the syndicates. None of these made much of a commercial impact until 1938, when National Periodical's (later known as DC Comics) Action Comics hit the newsstands featuring on its cover a costumed superhero named Superman. The creation of teenagers Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Superman immediately broadened the popularity of comic books and gave the medium its distinct identity. Within a year, Superman's comic books were selling close to a million copies per month. His success led very quickly to a proliferation of costumed heroes, including Batman, Captain Marvel, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Captain America.
Unlike their more conservative elders in the newspapers, comic books proved very adaptable to idealistic, absurdist, and culturally subversive material aimed directly at youth sensibilities. Most creators working in the industry were young urban sons of immigrants with liberal politics and populist social values. Based in and around New York City, the fledgling comic book industry comprised novice but enthusiastic artists and writers, experienced illustrators down on their luck, and businessmen who shared an "anything-for-a-buck" philosophy of publishing. Resulting from this unusual association was a comic-book image of Depression-era America, crude and outrageous, yet oddly sincere and hopeful as well.
The superheroes symbolized American ideals filtered through the cynical reality of the 1930s. Typically cast as "champions of the oppressed," colorfully costumed heroes aligned themselves squarely on the side of common people. Batman apprehended crooks who eluded the police and the courts on technicalities. Superman's enemies included greedy stockbrokers, heartless mine-owners, and wicked munitions manufacturers. The Green Lantern protected poor citizens from malicious corporate leaders and their crooked lawyers. By acting as a benevolent outside force to redress the power imbalance between virtuous common people and abusive corporate interests, superheroes championed the interventionist and collectivist spirit of the New Deal. Comic books implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, endorsed President Roosevelt's leadership and identified the enemies of the New Deal as the enemies of the nation.
Garish and direct, the entry of comic books into American discourse was the cultural equivalent to a sock on the jaw. Whereas adults generally read and adored the newspaper funnies—some of which were already being hailed as national treasures—comic books had a polarizing effect on the public. Even as they won legions of young fans, comic books sometimes left their parents bewildered and concerned. Critics accused them of inducing eye-strain, degrading cultural sensibilities, and desensitizing children towards violence. Comic books thus pointed toward a new era of "generation gaps" divided along lines of cultural preference. Initially regarded as a fad for young people in need of Depression-era escapism, few would have predicted that these comics would still be a vital part of American culture into the twenty-first century.
Benton, Mike. Superhero Comics of the Golden Age: The Illustrated History. 1992.
Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay. 2000.
Feiffer, Jules. The Great Comic Book Heroes. 1965.
Gordon, Ian. Comic Strips and Consumer Culture, 1890–1945. 1998.
Goulart, Ron. The Adventurous Decade. 1975.
Gould, Chester. Dick Tracy: The Thirties, Tommy Guns, and Hard Times. 1978.
Harvey, Robert C. Children of the Yellow Kid: The Evolution of the American Comic Strip. 1999.
Wright, Bradford W. Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America. 2001.
Bradford W. Wright
"Comics." Encyclopedia of the Great Depression. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 22, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/economics/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/comics
"Comics." Encyclopedia of the Great Depression. . Retrieved April 22, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/economics/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/comics
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